10 December 2018
I still remember when my father’s boss retired. I was about 10 years old and could remember him talking about his boss Harry from when I was a little girl. Harry was a great guy and he and my Dad shared the same engineer DNA. They swopped jokes and talked politics and exchanged stories about their kids growing up. So when it came for Harry to retire, my Dad was happy for him on the one hand as he prepared to make his way to a shiny new retirement home in Arizona, but sorry on the other, knowing he would sorely miss him after having worked together for 15 years.
What he wasn’t prepared for was the phone call that came just a month after he retired. My Mom answered. “It’s about Harry,” she said, handing him the phone. Harry had died. Only one month after retiring.
Sadly, this happens to a lot of people at retirement. They feel they have no purpose left in life and their bodies take their cue from this “it’s all over” attitude.
Not so in Germany. Judging by the hordes of sturdy pensioners on the commuter trains in Munich, this doesn’t seem to happen so much here. If you go to work just an hour or so later, the train is no longer packed with harried commuters. Instead there are groups of 70-year-olds dressed in lookalike waterproof gear, wielding walking sticks, their feet snug in state-of-the-art hiking boots and the latest sun-blocking cap is on their head. Unless of course it’s winter, in which case the walking sticks are replaced by cross-country skis and the footgear is ski boots.
My father-in-law Helmut fits this pattern to a tee. A spry 84-year-old, around four years ago he felt like he was gaining a bit too weight around the middle. So he stopped eating cake. Period. This is a big deal for Germans, who regularly indulge in Kaffee und Kuchen in mid-afternoon, like the British teatime tradition.
Helmut makes a science out of his leisure time. Last summer when he decided to go on a hike in the nearby Alps, he made sure to leave punctually to be there on time. In this case “on time” means being there before the gondola operator so that he is the first in line. He also has a lady friend whose late husband was an expert hiker, so the two of them criss-cross their way across the easier paths in the nearby Alps. More importantly, at least for me: if I need to know of a good café in any mountain town, I just call the Helmut hotline.
“Oh yes!” he says. “I know one. Café Crumble, off main street. Just turn into town off the first exit from the Autobahn and take the first parking spot you find.” Sure enough, this will be the best café around, full of pensioners in their hiking gear or olive green coats. If you’re lucky, there will be an old lady wearing a hat, usually sporting a feather. A hat like this turns your simple sojourn in the café into an bona fide Bavarian event.
I had a delightful young babysitter once named MariCarmen from Peru who marveled at the active pensioners in Germany.
“In Peru, all the old people just sit around complaining about their aches and pains,” she said. “They get fatter and fatter; their health continually deteriorates and eventually they just die.” She was in awe of the level of fitness of the old folks here. “Señor Helmut is also very fit,” she confirmed. After that I would jokingly call him “Herr Helmut” which made him very uncomfortable, much to my delight.
My daughter Natasha took a class trip to Paris by train a couple of years ago. Like on all class trips, the main attraction is the “trip” part. The teenagers took up a half of an entire train car, laughing, joking and doing teenagery things. The other half of the train car was taken up by – you guessed it, vacationing pensioners.
The two groups eyed each other suspiciously.
They think we’re too loud, the teenagers thought.
They think we’re too old, the pensioners thought.
The air was uneasy as they imagined how the other side was criticizing them. They prepared to defend themselves as soon as one side began censuring the other.
Right up until the moment when a gregarious granny started chatting up one of the gregarious girls.
“Where you guys headed?”
“Paris! I love Paris! What are you going to do there?”
And the ice was broken. After that the two sides of the train car started chatting away, comparing notes about being young then and now. A whole train car full of grandparents and grandchildren, reveling in the joys of being on the road.
Traveling is simply in the German DNA. They catch the bug when they’re in school and it never goes away, even when they have to turn in their Nordic walking sticks for canes. They won’t sit back until they’re forced to.